COVINGTON -- A respite from impending closure has been granted to Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter, as the current past due utility bill will be paid by two members of the board of directors.
During a special called meeting of the board Thursday night, member Paul Kelly volunteered to donate $5,000 and member Cheryl Heard, also treasurer at the shelter, said she would donate $1,000 to make the utility payment, after Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the city would cut off utilities on Monday.
The shelter was $5,320.38 in arrears on utilities. The bill was due in early September; Tuesday was the cut-off date, but Johnston asked for more time and made a personal appeal to residents to donate funds to the shelter.
Johnston declined to ask the city to waive late fees, saying that it would be unfair given that so many residents are struggling to pay bills, and the city can't make an exception for one customer.
New utility bills will be issued this week, likely another $5,000 for the shelter, so public donations are still needed and can be dropped off at any branch of Newton Federal Bank or made via PayPal on the shelter's website at www.rainbowcommuniyctr.org.
While the current crisis has been resolved, Johnston said there's a much bigger issue to tackle: the organizational structure at the shelter.
If operations were properly being handled, "We wouldn't be having this discussion," Johnston said. He added that the shelter was given a 30-day notification that utilities were due, but there was no action, and there should be a contingency plan in such situations. He also said the shelter has been late on utility bills in the past. The city of Covington changed the shelter's status from commercial to residential, which carries a lower utility charge. Bills in the past have been as high as $8,000 a month.
Johnston said someone needs to be brought in to handle the business side of the shelter -- accounting, grant writing -- and day-to-day operations, leaving working with shelter residents to Executive Director Clara Lett.
If shelter operations are handled properly, "I believe the money is going to flow in because the people of Newton County are very giving people," he said.
One ongoing problem has been a lack of participation by board members. There are 11 board members, with five attending Thursday. Johnston noted that with utilities in danger of being cut off and closing the shelter, there should be more members present.
Heard said there's been difficulty getting people who are consistently committed to be on the board, noting that there is rarely full attendance at meetings.
Commissioner Lanier Sims, whose marketing firm is donating its services to design a new logo and website for the shelter, said there must be an engaged board for the shelter to succeed. "We can talk all we want to talk, but until there is action of this board nothing is going to happen," Sims said.
He also said that, "You're not going to get people to really, really give unless they know they're giving to an organization that is run really well."
New board member Ed Hutter agreed that, "Everything is totally disorganized," and that "nothing's been done but talk."
Those in attendance discussed finding ways to better market the shelter to the community and ideas for fundraisers.
Lett and board member Kelly said they believe that the problems are financial, not organizational. "Criticizing and getting 15 Ph.Ds in here is not going to solve the issues," Kelly said.
Lett said that while agencies and churches inside and outside the county, including neighboring Rockdale County, use the shelter, most don't contribute financially. Only two local churches donate, she said.
Grants and other payments relied upon in the past are drying up, she said.
The shelter typically receives money from a program run by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to house state prisoners after they are released from prison. The shelter gets between $30,000 and $40,000 a year typically, but has not received any money since March, Heard said. They've also not received any former inmates to house since then, she said. Calls and emails to the program director have not been returned, she said.
Another grant administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, has been delayed this year. Last year, the shelter received $9,000 from that grant.
An opportunity to apply for the grant this year is not yet available due to the delay. The county receives funding that is divided between several local agencies by vote of a local committee. Dennis Cheek, chair of the local committee, said the funding has not yet been awarded to the county, and organizations can't apply to the committee until that happens.
Industries and agencies that provide local grants to the shelter have also reduced their donations in recent years, according to Lett.
Monthly operating expenses for the shelter are around $7,500, Heard said.
The Covington Housing Authority, which owns the property on Turner Lake Circle where the shelter is located, reduced monthly rent from $3,000 to $500 in 2011. According to a document provided by the Housing Authority, the shelter has not paid rent since February. The shelter has paid $16,000 in rent since 2009, according to the document, and owes more than $69,000.
Some shelter board members dispute the amount owed prior to the renegotiation of the lease.